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From Shang to the Zhou dynasty

Map of Zhou Dynasty territory

Zhou Dynasty approximate territory around 1000 BCE, drawn by Ian Kiu and offered by Harvard University Press.

Shang rule was threatened by forces from outside and from within its empire. To the west of Shang civilization, in the Wei River Valley, were a pastoral people called Zhou. They led an alliance that included other tribal peoples neighboring Shang civilization. While the Shang emperor, Zhouxin, was occupied by a war against tribal people to his southeast, rebellions broke out among people that Shang monarchs before him had conquered. The Zhou saw the troubles of the Shang emperor as an opportunity to extend their power, and in 1045 the Zhou overpowered him at the battle of Mu-ye and had him beheaded.

A dynasty of Zhou emperors began ruling what had been Shang civilization: King Wu from 1045 to 1042 and his son, King Cheng to 1021. They borrowed from Shang culture and claimed that all lands belonged to heaven, that they were the sons of heaven and therefore that all lands and all people were their subjects.

Seeing the lands they had conquered as too vast for one man to dominate, the Zhou emperors divided these lands into kinship regions, assigning rule perhaps to a tribal chief who had been allied with them against the Shang. Each of these subservient tribal chiefs had at his disposal all the lands around him and had his own militia. The Zhou emperors gave gifts to them such as chariots, bronze weapons, servants and animals.

The local rulers received the title of lord (gong), and the local rulers passed their positions to their sons, their title of lord becoming hereditary. And to control their areas better, the lords made sub-lords of those who had dominated the common people before they arrived. A hierarchy of status and obligations emerged among families and within families, with older brothers ranking higher than younger brothers. These were aristocratic families, and there were rules of succession as to which of the males in such a family would become its head. If a married aristocrat became infatuated with another woman, rather than drive his wife from his home he could bring the other woman into the family as a concubine, where she would rank beneath his wife.

With the Zhou, people continued their attempt to appease the gods by giving them gifts. Those who could afford it sacrificed cattle, sheep, pigs or horses. The sacrificing of humans diminished from what it had been under the Shang emperors, but Zhou emperors had their wives or friends join them in the grave.

Each year a young woman was offered as a bride to the river god. This latter sacrifice began with sorceresses choosing the most attractive woman they could find. They dressed the girl in satin, silk and jewelry and put her on a nuptial bed on a raft. They floated the raft down river. The raft sank and the girl drowned, gone as a gift to the invisible world of the river god.


The Sources of Chinese Tradition, vol.1, compiled by William de Bary, Chan and Watson, 1960

The Ageless Chinese, by Dun J. Li, 1978

China: a Macro History, by Ray Huang, 1990

"Shang Dynasty," Wikipedia

Additional Viewing

A site on ancient China authored by Jiang Yike, a postgraduate student in Traditional Chinese Medical Science whose hobby is Ancient Chinese Books.


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